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Related Catfish FAQs: Mochokid Catfishes, & FAQs on Catfish in General: Identification, Behavior, Compatibility, Selection, Systems, Feeding, Disease, Reproduction

Related Articles: Catfishes, African Cichlids

/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

The Squeakers, Lace or Upside Down Catfishes, Family Mochokidae

By Bob Fenner

Synodontis multipunctatus

The mochokids are a family of some181 species of African catfishes, distinguished from other siluriiforms by having ossified rays in their adipose fins and anal fins comprised of less than ten rays. Synodontis and other genera have three pair of barbels, one maxillary and two mandibular, the lower pairs being branched, giving them a feathery appearance.

    The mochokids are largely known by aquarists by the several somber to gorgeous members of the genus Synodontis. Though this genus accounts for the lions-share of mochokids (about 120), there are other "really neat" mochokids that infrequently grace international aquariums. Of note are the "African Plecos"  or better "African Suckermouth Catfishes" in three genera of this family; Atopochilus, Chiloglanis, and Euchilichthys. Like their common namesake these fishes have underslung subterminal mouths, flattened heads. Mochokiella paynei, Microsynodontis spp.

    The common names for this family are derived for several species tendency for topsy turvy spatial orientation, swimming upside-down. Lace refers to their branching "whiskers", and "squeakers" for making squeaking noises, particularly when netted and lifted from the water.

Habitat:

    Like the majority of catfishes, the Squeakers are largely nocturnal, and though you may see them out and about occasionally during the light of day, it is at night time that they really shine in behavior. Hence, some "hiding spaces" out of the light should be provided (rocks, driftwood, clay pots, pipe...) that will afford them comfort. Oversize their living spaces to keep the peace as well as providing you with a chance to enjoy their interaction with each other. There are species for as small as twenty gallon systems, but groups of even modest sized species need bigger spaces.

    Most of the species of mochokid catfishes offered in the trade are wild-collected in Nigeria, Zaire and the three largest lakes in Africa; Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi. Even the few occasional tank-bred specimens appreciate water quality somewhat like their "homeland", varying degrees of higher alkalinity and pH (dH 12-25, pH 7-8 in general). Investigate your species natural water conditions (fishbase.org, TetraPress books are excellent here) for more particulars re other aspects of the make-up of their native waters. These are active, feisty, eager eating animals that appreciate good water quality. A regular regimen of partial water changes (10-20% per week) while vacuuming the gravel is good insurance in providing clean water. Larger, more coarse natural gravel, or even "marine" substrates (e.g. dolomites, crushed coral) are better for systems with these fishes as they allow easier cleaning and help bolster pH and alkaline reserve. Sharp sands and definitely crushed glass are out... much too sharp, likely to damage their barbels and smooth skins.

    Filtration and circulation should be doubled for systems with these fishes as they enjoy good water movement and clean conditions. Outside power filters of good capacity and ease of cleaning (done weekly along with water changes, gravel vacuuming) are best here, arranged in such a way as to completely move all the system water about a few times hourly.

Tankmates:

    This is one family of very easygoing fishes. Mochokids get along with almost all fishes, including their own. Though there may be territorial squabbles if there isn't sufficient room to share in a dark area of preference, they soon learn to share space. To observe and enjoy these fishes, it is truly necessary to have at least a few specimens (three to five) of a given or mixed species in a system large enough to grant them room to move and grow and reduce potential aggression. There is no such thing as "too much volume".

    There is a possibility of slow-moving fishes being damaged by an over zealous feeding Synodontis (e.g. a male Betta), or fishes small and slow enough to be swallowed to be sucked up by your mochokid cats, but by and large these fishes leave alone all but the smallest tankmates.


Species Hobbyists Are Likely To See (and want!):

Synodontis angelicus Schilthuis 1891, the Angelicus Catfish/Synodontis, Angel Squeaker. Central Africa; the Congo Basin. To twenty inches long in the wild, rarely half that in captivity. Cond.: pH 6-8, dH 5-19, temp. 24-28 C. Variable black to brown background with with white to yellow prominent dots. A beauty, that can be aggressive when large. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9536&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=angelicus

Synodontis brichardi Poll 1959,. West Africa; lower Congo. To six inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6-8, dH 5-19, temp. 22-25 C. A favorite of the genus in the aquarium interest.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9544&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=brichardi

Synodontis decorus Boulenger 1899, the Decorus to aquarists is the Clown Squeaker to science. From Central Africa; Congo Basin. To over a foot in length. Conds.: pH 6-8, dH 4-25, temp. 23-27 C.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9554&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=decorus

Synodontis eupterus Boulenger 1901, the Featherfin Squeaker. Africa; the White Nile, Chad, Volta and Niger Basins. To nearly six inches in length. Cond.s pH 6.2-7.5, dH to 15, temp. 22-26 C. Like others of the family a ready feeder on most all foodstuffs. Sometimes available as captive produced small individuals. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9559&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=eupterus

Synodontis multipunctatus Boulenger 1898, the Many-Spotted Synodontis, Cuckoo Catfish. East Central Africa; Lake Tanganyika. To eleven inches total length in the wild. Cond.s dH 15-35, temp. 21-25 C. Found on muddy bottoms to depths of 100 meters. Notable as the only fish to practice brood parasitism. Lays eggs amongst cichlid nests, its young growing faster eating the cichlid fry. See Riegel (2001) re spawning.   http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9596&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=multipunctatus

Bigger PIX: The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Synodontis nigriventris David 1936, "the" (Blotched) Upside Down Catfish. Central Africa; Congo Basin. Cond.s: pH 6-8, dH 5-12, temp. 22-26 C. To nearly four inches total length. The most popular/common species of the family in the aquarium interest. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9599&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=nigriventris


Synodontis nigromaculatus Boulenger 1905. Central and Southern Africa. To fifteen inches in length in the wild. Cond.s: pH 6-7.5, dH to 20, temp. 22-26 C. One of the many "assorted Synodontis" sold in the aquarium trade. Feeds on insects, snails and small fishes.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=8708&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=nigromaculatus

Synodontis ocellifer Boulenger 1900. West Africa; Senegal to Chad. to nearly two feet in length in the wild. Similar to S. decorus, but without the latters flowing dorsal finnage or bar-marked caudal. More and more available as an import as well as a Florida farm produced species. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=5470&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=ocellifer

Synodontis robbianus Smith 1875, a "miscellaneous" Squeaker or Upside-Down Catfish. West Africa; Lower Niger and Cross River in Nigeria. To five inches in length.  Cond.s: pH 6-7.8, dH 10-25, temp. 21-24 C. One of many "assorted Synodontis" sold in the aquarium trade. A prodigious "picker upper" given adequate food of its own, hiding places out of the light.  http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9615&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=robbianus

Synodontis schoutedeni David 1936, the Schoutedeni Synodontis. Central Africa; Congo. To six and a half inches in length. Cond.s: pH 6-7.5, dH 4-15, temp. 22-26 C. Commonly sold as miscellaneous Synodontis, even as a/the "Upside-Down Catfish", mis-identified as S. nigriventris. See Boggs (2002) for spawning accounts. http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/Species Summary.cfm?ID=9619&genusname= Synodontis&speciesname=schoutedeni

Acclimation:

    A comment re these fishes "break in" period; the time being their collection and your having them on hand. Once fully acclimated to their surroundings this family of fishes is tremendously hardy, but the first month or so of their captivity is a very sensitive time... when most losses occur. It is advised not only that newly arrived (they are largely wild-collected, though do keep your eyes open for captive produced specimens... these are smaller, but grow quite rapidly...). Keep your eye on specimens for a good four weeks after you acquire them... to assure they are settling in and getting enough food. "The eyes are the window to the soul" applies with mochokids, especially the ones whose eyes "bug out"... look closely at your catfish's eyes in ascertaining their health. They should be clear and bright.

Foods/Feeding/Nutrition:

    Mochokid cats readily accept all types of foods in good quantity. In fact, the only real concern is balancing how much food to offer with your given mix of aquarium life. If you have a good deal of surface to mid-water feeding fishes, your cats may suffer from over-competition... and so you might be compelled to place sinking foods down near the bottom for their consumption. Another approach is to feed near dark or near daybreak (tank light break?) while your other fishes are "more asleep". Over time, most commonly available species of mochokids learn to feed at the surface... during daylight hours. In any event, make sure your Squeakers are receiving their share of some high-protein food daily or more often. This being stated, some greenery should be included in their diets regularly, particularly the non-Synodontis species. Blanched zucchini is relished, spinach is fine though messy, and even "green-based" pellets, sticks and tablets are good.

    As with all fishes, foods taken in the wild are not absolutely what one must offer as captive fare. Some Synodontis are known to consume a good quantity of snails (e.g. S. multipunctatus), even fish scales (S. schall of the Nile), all do well on a mix of fresh and prepared foods in aquariums.

Disease:

    Mochokids are scaleless fishes and as such should be carefully treated for apparent infectious and parasitic problems. Copper compounds and Malachite Green (not always obviously present when just reading the product name... read the ingredients label) are particularly toxic to these fishes. If you find that you must use these, do utilize just half doses, with the added benefit of elevated temperature (about ten degrees F. more depending on species involved), or better still, less toxic medicants. I particularly like "Furan" compounds (Furanace, Nitrofurazone, Furazolidone) for non-specific infectious agents ("fungusses", bacterial complaints like petecchia, blood spots, tears in the skin, "burned" whiskers and the like), and "Clear Ich" by Aquatronics for protozoan complaints (e.g. ich, velvet...).

Re Handling:

    Be careful are the watchwords here. These fishes have stout, make that strong and sharp leading dorsal and pectoral fin spines that, though not associated with toxin, are notably painful to be stuck by. If you must net them, use large tools, and a towel between you, the net and them.

Reproduction:

    A few species have been spawned in captivity with and without hormonal manipulation/injection. Females become very robust (fat) as they near spawning time and have broader, blunter genital papillae than males. Some notes re various species: Synodontis petricola scatters its dense, clear eggs and milt at night in a cave and no parental care is exercised. S. shoutedeni is a day spawner, with eggs being released in mid-water and females practicing a type of "sperm drinking" fertilization, having engulfed the males sperm just ahead of this time while diving into floating material together. S. multipuncatus is a sort of "cuckoo catfish" that hangs around with various mouthbrooding cichlids, sneaking their fertilized eggs amongst the unknowing cichlids spawn. The multipuncatus fry hatch out ahead of the cichlids and generally consume them over time.

    As can be seen, all depends on the species in question regarding what sort of set-up one needs to provide (separating adults from spawn to... nothing) in order to successfully spawn and rear these fishes.

Cloze:

    As a family of catfishes, the mochokids get the highest marks for broad selection, desirability and appropriateness for aquarium use. There is virtually some species for most any/all freshwater systems, particularly biotopic African ones, including those with rough and tumble cichlids hailing from the "dark continent". The family's members are remarkably hardy, aggressive enough to hold their own with most any mix of tankmates, yet almost entirely dismissing of other fish life. They more than readily consume all types of foods, have no great water quality needs, and many are exceptionally beautiful. Add their obvious intelligence and playful natures in and you have a group of fishes that offer much to the aquarium interest.

    Give them room, a dark space to be during the day, some food of their own, and a dearth of toxic "medications" and you will may have a wet pet for decades.


Bibliography/Further Reading:

Catfishes on the Internet:

http://fishbase.org/Summary/FamilySummary.cfm?ID=144

  http://phylogeny.arizona.edu/tree/eukaryotes/animals/chordata/actinopterygii/siluriformes/siluriformes.html

Planet Catfish: http://www.planetcatfish.com/core/index.htm

http://scotcat.com/

Allen, Bob. 1995. Breeding Synodontis multipunctatus. TFH 7/95.

Boggs, Sallie S. 2002. Breeding and raising Synodontis shoutedeni in the home aquarium. FAMA 4/02.

Burgess, Warren E. 1989. An Atlas of Freshwater and Marine Catfishes. Tropical Fish Hobbyist Publications. NJ, USA. pp. 786.

Colditz, Gabrielle. 1992. The strange life of Synodontis multipunctatus. TFH 2/92.

Finley, Lee. 1979. Some Synodontis species of the Zaire Basin. Pt. II, FAMA 9/79.

Finley, Lee. 1980. Some Synodontis species of the Zaire Basin. Pt. III, FAMA 5/80.

Finley, Lee. 1981. Some Synodontis species of the Zaire Basin. Pt. I, revised. FAMA 9/81.

Finley, Lee. 1981. Some Synodontis species of Nigeria. FAMA 10,11/81. 

Finley, Lee. 1982. Food and feeding of Synodontis catfish. FAMA 3/82.

Finley, Lee. 1982. Synodontis victoriae- Boulenger. FAMA 7/82.

Finley, Lee. 1983. Synodontis njassae Keilhack. FAMA 3/83.

Finley, Lee. 1984. Reproduction in Synodontis multipunctatus Boulenger. FAMA 6/84.

Finley, Lee. 1984. Aquarium observations on apparent reproductive behavior in Synodontis brichardi (Poll). FAMA 10/84.

Finley, Lee. 1985. Mochokiella paynei Howes. A small mochokid catfish from Sierra Leone, Africa. FAMA 3/85.

Finley, Lee. 1986. Synodontis polli Gosse, the replacement name for Synodontis eurystomus Matthes. FAMA 6/86.

Finley, Lee. 1993. An introduction to Synodontis nigriventris, the Upside-Down Catfish. TFH 7/93.

Finley, Lee. 1996. Synodontis. To aquarists, it means African catfish. AFM 8/96.

Finley, Lee. 1997. Catfish Corner: Synodontis victoriae, an endangered species. TFH 11/97.

Finley, Lee. 1998. Catfish Corner: Mochokiella paynei Howes- a small mochokid catfish. TFH 7/98.

Finley, Lee. 1999. Catfish Corner: African "Plecos" (the genus Chiloglanis). TFH 7/99.

Howe, Jeffrey C. 1992. Original Descriptions: Synodontis vanderwaali. FAMA 10/92.

Howe, Jeffrey C. 1992. Original Descriptions: Synodontis macrostoma. FAMA 12/92.

Morah, John. 1997. 'Multi Catfish'. Adventures with Synodontis multipunctatus. AFM 10/97.

Nelson, Joseph S. 1994. Fishes of the World, 3d ed.. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. NY. 600pp.

Pinter, Helmut. 1959. Breeding Synodontis nigriventris. TFH 4/59.

Riegel, Jerry. 2001. Spawning Synodontis multipunctatus. FAMA 6/01.

Sands, David D. 1979. Synodontis angelicus: A collectors item? FAMA 8/79.

Sands, David D. 1986. Catfishes in aquaria. Pt. 3: the Mochokids. TFH 12/86.

Sands, David. 1993. The Cuckoo Cat. FAMA 6/93.

Taylor, Ed. 1995. The man who would be Synodontis king. TFH 5/95.

Walker, Braz. 1969. A study in silver and black. The Aquarium 6/69.

Walker, Braz. 1973. Synodontis notatus, an African noisemaker. TFH 8/73.

Walker, Braz. 1980. Ol' bugeyes... Synodontis contractus. FAMA 6/80.



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